Recently I came across a passage in Sphere, A.R. Ammons' long poem, that caught my interest by the way it drew a parallel between natural and cultural evolution:
in the generations and becomings of our minds, anthologies,
good sayings are genes, the images, poems, stories
chromosomes and the interminglings of these furnish beginnings
within continuities, continuities within trials, mischances,
fortunate forwardings: gene pool, word hoard: the critic
samples the new thing, he turns it over in his consideration,
he checks alignments, proportions, he looks into the body of
the anthology to see if the new thing hooks in, distorts, to raise
or ruin: he considers the weight, clarity, viability of
the new thing and reconsiders the whole body of the anthology:
if the new thing finds no attachment, if energy, cementing,
does not flow back and forth between it and the anthology,
it dies, withered away from the configuration of the people...
The "sphere" Ammons writes about in this poem is the earth. And though I'm still in the midst of reading Sphere, I can see how integrating the two "evolutions" is in keeping with the poem's themes, as all the topics and images it presents are swept up into a single, self-modifying ecology.
But there's also a historical aspect about these lines that interests me. Ammons' poem was originally published in 1974. Two years later, science writer Richard Dawkins offered a similar analogy between biological and cultural evolution in The Selfish Gene. Except, instead of referring to "literary" genes and chromosomes, as Ammons does, Dawkins coined the now famous term "memes" (which sounds a little like "genes," but also connotes [cultural] memory). Here's how he defined his new word:
"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain."
Dawkins casts a wider cultural net than Ammons but, nevertheless, if you replace the "scientist" in his prose with the "critic" in Sphere, you have a fairly good analogy between the two concepts.
The Decline and Fall of the "Meme"
Since the 70s, I've read, the whole idea of "memes" has been pretty much discredited as far as its scientific value goes. The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci writes that "we don't know how to define memes in a way that is operationally useful to the practicing scientist, we don't know why some memes are successful and others not, and we have no clue as to the physical substrate, if any, of which memes are made. Tellingly, the Journal of Memetics closed a few years ago for lack of submissions."
The "meme" concept has also come under fire from cultural criticism. It's often seen as another "reductionist" product of scientism -- that form of intellectual overreach through which materialist thinkers seek to explain things they know little about by ascribing them, in some crude way, to processes borrowed from the natural sciences.
The only area, in fact, where the concept still has currency is the web. But rather than something governed by "critics" or "scientists," the meme has become a populist, occasionally (mildly) subversive creation, as people joyously replicate, mutate and circulate endless goofy pictures of cats, celebrities, politicians and optical illusions.
The Return of Cultural Evolution
Despite the fate of "memes," the desire to discover patterns of cultural evolution has not gone away -- nor, for that matter, the pursuit of approaches to literature that use tools pioneered in the natural sciences.
The relatively new field of "digital humanities" is a case in point. Because of the quickly growing digital archive of texts, both popular and "canonical," scholars are now able to pursue increasingly systematic, quantifiable approaches to literature. They are beginning, for example, to be able to trace the way basic stylistic traits in the novel change between centuries.
Science scholar Armand Marie Leroi has written recently that this area of study may result in "something resembling the theory of organic evolution..." and will draw on fields such as "epidemiology, cognitive psychology and behavioral economics," along with the literary analysis of critics who interpret what these methods discover.
All of which makes me wonder if we're witnessing a shift. Over the past 30 years or so, cultural critics have often been fascinated with the idea of viewing science through the lens of literature. Perhaps now they are becoming enchanted by imagining what literature looks like in the eyes of a scientist. Thoughts?